Real solutions

In my discussions of gun violence and gun rights, I’m often confronted with the question of what I would do to reduce the number of people who get shot, especially the number who die in mass shootings.  This is often meant as a political attack, since people who support gun rights are assumed to be right-wing, but it does raise important matters to consider.

First, the question implies that finding a solution is my responsibility.  Is that fair?  In fact, in a way, it is.  I am a citizen of my nation, a participant in society, and a member of the human species.  Harms and injustices anywhere hurt each of us everywhere.  This doesn’t mean that I am obliged to have the answer, the magic solution that will stop people from being murdered, committing suicide, or being harmed in accidents, but I do have to care.

At the same time, the accusation that I or others who support gun rights are complicit in acts of violence is flat wrong.  I have shot no one, nor have my guns been involved in harming anyone while I’ve owned them.  (I do have some old guns, including some W.W. II surplus weapons, so I can’t vouch for them before they became mine.)  And the exercise of rights isn’t the same thing as criminal or negligent violence.

But what is the extent and nature of the problem?  The numbers vary year by year, but around 30,000 Americans die each year from gunfire.  Of that total, roughly 2/3 are suicides, while 1/3 are homicides.  Accidental deaths are the smallest part, some 600 per annum.  The term, mass shooting, has been a subject of dispute in how to define what we mean, but however we qualify such deaths, they represent less than one percent of total homicides by gunshot.

Homicide is a complex category.  The Census Bureau provides a detailed look at the various reasons people kill each other in this country, but about a third of murders are characterized as “unknown.”  Of the remainder, homicides committed because of other felonies amount to a significant part, but not a majority of the total.  Certainly, not all murders are done with guns, but firearms do account for the largest part of total homicides, some two-thirds.

So what do we do, especially if gun control isn’t an acceptable answer?  If our interest is reducing the number of people who die due to gunfire each year, the obvious first thing to do is to work on suicides.  To my way of thinking, suicide is an individual’s right—if it isn’t, we are left to consider to whom we belong—but making effective mental health services available for everyone, with the caveat that such treatment must respect the privacy rights of patients, can reduce the total number of Americans who kill themselves.

The next answer is to end the War on Drugs.  We have wasted over a trillion dollars trying to stop people from getting something they want, either for recreational purposes or to feed a desperate addiction.  Now the number of homicides that are directly related to drugs is a small part of the total—about a 1,500 a year, if we include gang violence—but substance abuse is a driver of other criminal activities such as robberies to fund a drug habit, and a major portion of our prison population is addicted. And then there is the effect of a criminal record on a person’s prospects for decent jobs.  President Obama’s commutation of the sentences of forty-six drug offenders is a very small step in the right direction.  A better answer would be to pardon and expunge the records of everyone convicted of mere possession, then legalize all drugs and focus our spending on addiction treatment programs that work.

Beyond these two solutions, we have to move on to a policy change that many will find squishy and “progressive”:  Make all schools excellent.  Since I’m an educator, this may sound self-serving, and indeed, it is.  I like my television set.  I’d prefer that no one breaks into my home to steal it.  And the higher the level of educational attainment in a population, the lower the rates of violent crime.  This policy choice will cost money—a lot of money in the near term—but the benefits to society promise to be many and great, not just in terms of reducing crime, but also in economic advantage.

In all of this, the key point is to consider solutions that will do actual good, rather than accepting the knee-jerk reactions that offer to placate our emotions but hold no assurance of solving problems.  Lashing out with new gun control punishes the millions of American gun owners who do no wrong with their guns.  What I have proposed here is aimed at reducing deaths through means that won’t violate our rights.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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